The Priest of Ypres

“In World War I Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had survived thirty months at the front; he rescued the wounded  – it was his job – under heavy bombardment.  A witness remembered his “rough hewn face that Greco had prefigured” and his “total lack of ecclesiasticism.”  One of the officers serving with him wrote, “Two features of his personality struck you immediately:  courage and humility.”  His regiment’s Tunisian sharpshooters, who were Muslims, used to say rather cryptically that a “spiritual structure” protected him when he plucked bodies from the ground in crossfire.  In battle, he rejoiced in his anonymity and in the front’s exhilaration.  Prescious few men left the Battle of Ypres with a beating heart, let alone a full stomach, let alone exhilaration:

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“Nobody except those who were there will ever have the wonder-laden memory that a man can retain of the plain of Ypres in April 1915, when the air of Flanders stank of chlorine and the shells were tearing down the poplars along by l’Yperle Canal – or, again, of the charred hillsides of Souville, in July 1916, when they held the odour of death. . . . . Those more than human hours impregnate life with a clinging, ineradicable flavour of exaltation and initiation, as though they had been transferred into the absolute.”  The “clinging ineradicable flavour” was perhaps mud – the mud of Ypres in which two hundred thousand British and Commonwealth men died, ninety thousand of them lost in the actual mud.

Action he loved.  His ever increasing belief that God calls people to build and divinize the world, to aid God in redemption, charged every living moment with meaning – precisely why the battlefield gripped him.  “The man at the front is. . . . only secondary his own self.  First and foremost, he is part of a prow of cleaving the waves.”  He dared title an essay “Nostalgia for the Front”:  “All the enchantments of the East, all the spiritual warmth of Paris, are not worth the mud of Douaumont. . . . . How heart-rending it is to find oneself so seldom with a task to be accomplished, one to which the soul feels that it can commit itself unreservedly!”

When he entered the war, he was already a priest.  One dawn in 1918, camped in a forest in the Oise with his Zouave regiment, he had neither bread nor wine to offer at Mass.  He had an idea, however, and he wrote it down.

Five years later, he sat on a camp stool inside a tent by the Ordos desert cliffs west of Peking.  He reworked his old wartime idea on paper.  What God’s priests, if empty-handed, might consecrate at sunrise each day is that one day’s development:  all that the evolving world will gain and produce, and all it will lose in exhaustion and suffering.  These the priest could raise and offer.

In China again, four years later yet, he rode a pony north in the Mongolaian grasslands and traced Quaternary strata.  Everyday still he said to himself what he now called his Mass upon the altar of the world, “to divinize the new day”:  since once more, my Lord, not now in the forests of the Aisne but in the steppes of Asia, I have neither bread nor wine, nor altar, I shall rise beyond symbols to the pure majesty of the real, and I shall offer you, I your priest, on the altar of the whole earth, the toil and sorrow of the world.”

By Annie Dillard in For The Time Being, (1999), pg. 126-128

 

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